The first Edcamp was organized in Philadelphia in 2010 by a team of like-minded educators who were frustrated by one-size-fits-all professional development experiences.

As educators gear up for a new school year, they’ll be doing some learning of their own in professional development workshops and sessions. Unfortunately, district and school-based professional development is often described as tiresome and irrelevant, but there are alternatives. One of these alternatives that’s quickly catching on is an Edcamp “unconference”—the antidote to mandated professional development.

Edcamps are free, organic, one-day, participant-driven professional development gatherings organized by educators for educators. Typically held on Saturdays in educational facilities, Edcamps have no pre-set presentation schedule, nor any pre-selected presenters. Instead, participants volunteer to facilitate conversations and hands-on activities among peers.

The first Edcamp was organized in Philadelphia in 2010 by a team of like-minded educators who were frustrated by one-size-fits-all, passive-learning professional development experiences. Inspired by Daniel Pink’s book, Drive, the originators felt that their intrinsic motivation for self-directed learning was a more powerful incentive for professional development than district imposed “sit-and-git” training. They first met at another unconference for people in the local technology community, called BarCamp, to share their best practices and brainstorm solutions to common problems in education. It was there that the idea of the first Edcamp was conceived.

The current Edcamp schedule lists 164 events, starting with the original Edcamp Philly in May 2010 and running through February 2013. Some districts, like Burlington Public Schools in Massachusetts, have adopted the model for weekly professional development meetings—strictly voluntary, and open to all. While most Edcamps are organized regionally, some target specific audiences, such as superintendents, principals, a specific discipline like art or social studies, or a theme—like Edcamp CommonCore. There are even rumors of an upcoming Edcamp organized and facilitated by students—a vehicle for honest dialog between educators and students, education’s most important stakeholders.

Edcamps generally follow a similar timeline. An event is organized, registration opens (some fill up fast), and an online sharing space (where participants can initiate conversations about topics of interest before the event, post content for sessions during the event, and comment about discussions afterwards) is created. Here is a typical schedule for an Edcamp:

  • 8:00-8:45 Registration, breakfast, and networking
  • 8:45-9:00 Introduction/explanation
  • 9:00-9:30 Schedule building
  • 9:30-10:20 Session 1
  • 10:30-11:20 Session 2
  • 11:30-12:20 Session 3
  • 12:20-1:30 Lunch
  • 1:30-2:20 Session 4
  • 2:30-3:20 Session 5
  • 3:30-4:30 Group smackdown/prize giveaway
  • 5:00 After party

Session content is negotiated during “schedule building” time. It is malleable—often created with sticky notes or index cards to allow for reorganization, consolidation, merging, and time shifting. It starts with a blank matrix with designated spaces for room numbers (including capacity) across the top, and time slots along the left-hand side, and then participants post topics of interest. Related topics are frequently merged, and facilitators team up. Participants who wish to attend two sessions in the same time slot can move them around so they can attend them all.

While the physical schedule is under construction, Edcamp volunteers collaborate to populate a corresponding Google spreadsheet of the session activity. Quick Response codes with links to the schedule are posted throughout the facility, so that participants can download it to their devices and track its development in real time without having to revisit the board.

Edcamps are guided by a few principles. Gatherings are…

  • Free
  • Non-commercial and conducted with a vendor-free presence
  • Hosted by any organization interested in furthering the Edcamp mission
  • Made up of sessions that are determined on the day of the event
  • Events where anyone who attends can be a presenter
  • Reliant on the “law of two feet” that encourages participants to find a session that meets their needs

Back-channeling—synchronous conversations about learning, usually conducted via Twitter—is essential to Edcamps, because it helps participants practice the “law of two feet.” By following the conference hashtag (#EdcampCT, #EdcampBOS, etc.), participants can monitor other sessions. This empowers participants to literally steer their learning to meet their needs.

Session facilitators make time for dialogue, questioning, and reflection, so an esoteric conversation about inquiry can morph into a concrete, hands-on, question-building workshop. It is truly a democratic process.

While Edcamps are non-commercial and vendor-free, sponsor support enables Edcamp registration to remain cost-free. Participants also might make modest donations, or choose to support the event by purchasing an Edcamp T-shirt. Facilities booking, insurance, breakfast, lunch, and the after party can add up surprisingly fast, so organizers are obliged to reach out to educational organizations for support.

Each Edcamp ends with a grand finale—an educational technology “smackdown.” Participants gather in a common space where audience members take turns showcasing one technology they love. They bring their device to the podium and plug it into an overhead projector to share—in under two minutes—what it is, how it works, and possible instructional applications. Conference volunteers compile a list of all the shared resources, which is then posted on the Edcamp’s shared online space—usually a wiki or a blog.

As a participant in several Edcamps since April 2011, I can’t say enough for the model. My takeaways always reflect my real-time professional development needs. Even when I don’t have time to apply new learning during the sessions, I leave with a list of new contacts eager to review what they shared later on. The shared online space archives the schedule, session notes, related resources, the backchannel, the smackdown record, photos, and a list of attendees.

Even though the gathering occurs in real time, the learning remains accessible in perpetuity. I’ve made great friends through Edcamps—educators I admire, who share my passion for innovation, and who fuel my curiosity. “Giving up” a Saturday for an Edcamp is no concession. It’s a gift.

If you wish to organize an Edcamp, the Edcamp Wiki provides a plethora of resources, including this comprehensive Guide to Organizing an Edcamp Event.
Michelle Luhtala is the library department chair at New Canaan High School in Connecticut. She facilitates a professional learning community for more than 3,500 school librarians at edWeb.net/emergingtech. She serves on the American Association of School Librarians’ Board of Directors and serves on two Connecticut Digital Library advisory boards. Luhtala is a contributing author to Growing Schools: Librarians as Professional Developers and is frequently published in professional literature for school librarians. She blogs at Bibliotech.me.